A block of Sansom Street reopens to traffic, and restaurateurs aren’t too happy

Traffic on the 1500 block of Sansom Street returned to full-time traffic last week for the first time since August 2020, when the city implemented a pilot program to grant partial closures to allow restaurants to s install outdoors.

But the move – which comes as the city considers reconfiguring its rules governing popular streets – has been met with grumbling from at least two neighborhood restaurateurs as they lose their outdoor spaces.

The 1500 block of Sansom, a narrow east-west street about 20 feet wide with one driving lane and one parking lane, is one of the densest restaurant rows in the downtown area, with establishments such such as Oyster House, Snap Pizza, Su Xing House, Mission Taqueria, 1518 Bar & Grill, Ladder 15, Oscar’s Tavern, Harp & Crown, Giuseppe & Sons and Marathon Grill.

READ MORE: Philadelphia restaurants push to relax street rules

As the pandemic pushed outdoor dining, Rittenhouse Row, a neighborhood business group, asked the city for several street closures, including 18th Street adjacent to and north of Rittenhouse Square and 1500 Sansom, Evening and the weekend. These streets took on a festive air, with tents and tables surrounded by metal barricades. As the pandemic dragged on, some restaurants got temporary permission from the Department of Licensing and Inspections for actual structures, known as streeteries, under a pilot program. This conflicted with the City Streets Department’s directive to provide 10 feet of space for emergency vehicles – effectively one lane.

While the 18th Street closures ended last year, 1500 Sansom Street remained a car-free zone.

The 1600 block of Sansom, meanwhile, was closed to traffic due to construction last summer and will continue to be closed for months, forcing drivers to turn right onto 16th Street. “It makes no sense to reopen [the 1500 block] when you’re just directing traffic to a dead end,” said Daniel McLaughlin, owner of Mission Taqueria.

The 60-seat street shared by Oyster House and Mission Taqueria across from the restaurants remained in place on Friday, but owners said they were not using them for safety reasons. McLaughlin said it was unwise for servers and staff to cross a traffic lane to get there. (The street is actually located in the parking lane.)

“There is not a single guest who wants the street to reopen,” said Sam Mink, owner of Oyster House. “Some customers don’t feel comfortable eating inside.” Additionally, the outdoor setup helped their bottom line in the colder months and they hoped to use them in the spring and summer. Mink said he would keep the $70,000 structure in place in case new regulations allow it.

At the 16th Street end of the block, Marathon Grill recently scrapped its barricaded seating area, which occupied both lanes of traffic, at the request of the city. Cary Borish, whose family owns the restaurant, said Marathon would use its 24 sidewalk spaces.

Ken Sherman, owner of Sherman Bros. Shoes, one of the neighborhood’s few non-restaurants, said it believes streets shouldn’t be permanently closed. “I think there needs to be a lot more communication between restaurants and retail,” he said. “If the areas cannot be clean and well maintained, the streets will have to remain open to traffic. Streets should only be closed to traffic on weekends.

Meanwhile, more than 100 restaurateurs joined a March 16 zoom call led by council member Allan Domb to voice their opinions on Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration’s new outdoor dining regulations, which included rules and unexpected charges last month. Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the street closure program has helped restaurants rebound.

“Philadelphians love outdoor dining and the vibrancy it brings to our community,” Fileccia said. “The city finally ordered the streets to reopen. And as they have throughout the pandemic, restaurants have cooperated and complied. As we continue to work with the mayor and his administration, we hope the city recognizes the benefits of the street closure initiative. He said they hope the city will allow limited closings during the warmer months.

City spokesman Kevin Lessard said Friday the administration is reviewing comments from restaurant owners and considering changes to regulations. “We hope to address many of the concerns raised by restaurants,” he said. “We will, however, comply with legal requirements, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and state motor vehicle laws, and strive to balance the interests of all residents, visitors and businesses who are affected by the use of the public right-of-way.”

About Michael B. Billingsley

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